Boeing’s 747 jumbo jetliner turns 50

The world got its first glimpse of Boeing Co.'s 747 jumbo jet in flight half a century ago, on Feb. 9, 1969, as it soared into the sky above a throng of onlookers and the Everett, Washington, factory created to bring it to life.

Ever since, people have not stopped gawking at the iconic humpbacked aircraft, whose stately lines resemble those of a cruise ship.

(Bloomberg) (Bloomberg)

The first test-flight aircraft, RA001, was more than double the size of Boeing's next largest commercial jet at the time. The jet's pilots sat in a cockpit three stories off the ground. It was brought to life from drawings in just two-and-a-half years, by a team led by Joe Sutter, Boeing's fiery tempered chief engineer. The design defied the wishes of launch customer PanAm and the cost almost bankrupted Boeing.

Still, the 747 shrank the globe, introduced concepts and technologies that forever changed long-distance travel, from twin aisles to inflight entertainment. Boeing went on to sell 1,572 of the jets as the jumbo was redesigned and updated over the decades. While twin-engine jets like Boeing's 777 and later the Airbus A350 have mostly replaced jumbos on long distance passenger routes, air freight haulers are still buying a cargo version of the 747.

Crowds of people gathered to see the 747 roll out of the factory for the first time on Sept. 30, 1968 (above), with Boeing saying some 50,000 people had worked on bringing it to life — from construction workers, engineers and mechanics, to secretaries and administrators. The team was dubbed “The Incredibles.”

So costly was the project, that Sutter had at one point been ordered to fire 1,000 engineers to save money. But he refused, instead demanding Boeing hire 800 more. He later wrote that he was certain Boeing was going to fire him for his defiance. Not only did he keep his job, he also got the extra manpower he wanted.

The aircraft was launched with a handshake agreement between the CEOs of Boeing and PanAm, in anticipation of a surge in passenger traffic and increasingly crowded skies. Convinced that passenger travel would soon migrate to supersonic jets, Sutter's team designed the jet with a second purpose in mind — transporting oversize cargo. They shifted the cockpit back so that cargo pallets could be loaded through a hinged nose that flips open — and created the 747's iconic hump.

Jack Waddell, Boeing's then chief test pilot, helmed the first flight on Feb. 9, 1969. It was a sight to behold. The fuselage of the airplane was 225 feet long and the tail was six-stories high. The cargo hold had room for 3,400 pieces of baggage and could be unloaded in seven minutes, according to the planemaker. The total wing area was larger than a basketball court, while the entire global navigation system weighed less than a modern laptop computer.

Sutter, in his autobiography, “747,” described a moment of truth as the jumbo prepared for its first landing after an hour-and-a-quarter aloft. Some so-called experts had contended the aircraft was too big to bring safely back to earth. But to Sutter's relief, RA001 descended “with the stately majesty of an ocean liner,” flaring gently before touching down smoothly. “All my worries evaporated and I knew we had a good airplane,” he wrote.

But the plane wasn’t the one PanAm had in mind when it placed the order. Juan Trippe, the airline’s founder, had envisioned an aerial ocean liner — a double-decker, single-aisle aircraft seating 400 people. To Sutter, Trippe's single-aisle concept was doomed for safety reasons. The engineer held out and eventually won Pan Am over to his twin-aisle design, then a novelty but now a standard in long-haul jets.

PanAm's inaugural 747 flight for paying passengers, from New York to London, was preceded by much drama. The service, originally scheduled to depart in the evening of Jan. 21, 1970, was delayed after an engine flamed out. A back-up 747 aircraft was called in, which eventually took off almost two hours past midnight, securing its place in the history books with a landing in London on January 22.

Six new Boeing 747 tails are displayed on the embankment of the Boeing Everett Factory in 1970, waiting to be delivered to their respective airlines.

Film technicians at Pinewood Studios set up a miniature air crash sequence for the Jack Gold film “The Medusa Touch,” on August 9, 1977, using scale models of a Boeing 747 and a skyscraper.

Lufthansa uses Volkswagen Beetle cars to demonstrate the loading capacity of its Boeing 747 F - Jumbo Freighter, in 1972. While the appeal of four-engine jets like the 747 is fading for passenger travel, the aircraft is still going strong for cargo carriers. (Bloomberg)